Plato's cave, described in book 7 of the Republic, may be the most famous analogy in all of western philosophy. It has inspired countless books, movies, and TV shows including, most notably, The Matrix.
In this episode, we are joined by Ben Morison, professor of philosophy at Princeton University, to dive deep into the allegory of the cave and unpack its various levels of meaning.
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Transcript of the Episode's Prologue
"What if I told you that you are a slave. That like everyone else, you were born into bondage, in a prison that you cannot see or smell or touch. A prison of the mind.” (paraphrase of what Morpheus tells Neo in The Matrix)
It’s hard to believe that it’s been almost 23 years since the first Matrix movie came out. It’s hard to believe how deeply its imagery and metaphors have penetrated our collective imagination. The idea of the Matrix has proved so compelling that now, 19 years after the saga seemingly ended with Matrix: Revolutions, we just got yet another sequel.
The matrix may be everyone’s favorite metaphor for describing a state of delusion, where people don’t realize all the lies they are being fed. But the Wachowskis didn’t invent this image. The Matrix is just one of many new takes on a very old idea: Plato’s cave.
The cave analogy, which takes up the majority of book 7 of the Republic, is one of the most famous passages in all of western philosophy. It’s arguably the highlight of the Republic. And I think Plato himself sensed that. Because the very first word of the Republic is κατέβην, which means “I went down.” In the beginning that refers to Socrates “going down” to the port of Piraeus, where he meets up with the other characters who will take part in the philosophical discussion that makes up the Republic.
But as loyal listeners of this show will know well by now, the first few words of a classical text are never random. They are always chosen carefully and deliberately with a purpose in mind.
And so, some interpreters and scholars have suggested that the entire Republic is a metaphor for Socrates going down, not to the port of Piraeus but into the cave of our collective ignorance and attempting to pull his companions and us readers up towards the light.
Now, there are many, many discussions out there about the cave and many updated takes like the Matrix, which btw we’ll talk about more in the next episode. But in this one, I wanted to explore in-depth and rigorously all the facets of the cave – really dive in – and try to squeeze out as much philosophical juice as possible. And I think I have the perfect guest to help bring some illumination to this dark cavern.
But first, I think a very brief summary of the cave is in order. Now, those of you listened to the last episode will remember the divided line. The cave is, in a sense, a dramatized version of the divided line. Plato is taking the divided line and bringing it to life by making it into a story.
So, the divided line ends book 6, and book 7 begins with Socrates saying, “Now, consider how the following analogy or allegory can help us understand what it means to be educated well or badly.”
Imagine, he says, a bunch of prisoners in a cave. They’re all shackled and facing the back wall of the cave. They can’t even see each other, or the fact that they are imprisoned. They can only see shadows on the wall.
Why are there shadows on the wall? Well, because behind the prisoners and unbeknownst to them, there is another group of people, who are projecting those shadows on the wall. So, there is a fire, which again the prisoners don’t know about. And between the fire and the backs of the prisoners, there is a low artificial wall, about as high as a person. And so these shadow-casters, they walk back and forth between the fire and the artificial wall. So, they are completely concealed from the prisoners, who have no idea they even exist. But over their heads they hold objects, like little statues or plants or figures, whatever. And those objects which poke out above the low wall then cast shadows onto the actual wall of the cave which the prisoners are looking at.
So, if you’re a prisoner, you see what appears to be, you know, a human figure going across the wall, followed by a plant, and then maybe a dog. You see these figures, and since that’s the only reality you know, you think they are real.
Then, Socrates says, imagine that one of these prisoners is liberated, perhaps with outside help. Someone, maybe an enlightened philosopher, frees them from their shackles and turns them towards the fire and the actual objects that are casting the shadows. If you think back to the divided line, this is an obvious parallel to the move from the first to the second level of cognition, from eikasia based on indirect images to pistis based on direct empirical observation.
Now, how do you think the prisoner would react to being shown the truth? How would you react to seeing the fire and the physical objects for the first time? Happy? Confused? Angry?
Next, imagine that this enlightened philosopher proceeds to lead you out of the cave. It’s not going to be an easy journey, as we’ll find out today, but let’s say you make it. Once you’re out of the cave, faced with the extreme brightness of the sun, at first you can only bear to look at things in the shade and in reflections in ponds or what not. But these shadows and reflections are more real than the artificial objects the shadow-casters were holding in the cave. So you’ve moved up another level of reality.
With time, your eyes adjust, you emerge from the shadows, and you behold the objects themselves – trees, animals, people – in the clarity afford by the sun, and you realize that these are the ultimate sources, not only of the shadows and reflections out here in the world, but these are the things that the statuettes and dolls back in the cave were imitating. So, the shadows that you grew up thinking were real, were imitations, so to speak, of things that were in turn, imitations of other things completely outside of the cave.
You’ve now moved up through four levels of reality, just as there were four parts of the divided line.
Finally, Plato says that if you go back down into the cave, and speak to your old friends who are still shackled, and try to tell them what you now know and what you’ve seen, they’ll think you’re crazy.
So that, in very broad outline, is the cave, just so that any of you who haven’t read it can follow the discussion. Now, what does all of it mean?
Well, for that, we’re going to need some assistance, someone to drag us to the light. But I think I’ve found the right person for the job. Ben Morison is professor of ancient philosophy at Princeton University. He is most well known for his extensive scholarship on Aristotle, but he’s taught the entire Republic many times at the highest level, and he also has a deep grasp of ancient mathematics, which I think is crucial for understanding Plato’s epistemology. So without further ado, here is my conversation with Ben Morison on the cave.